When my business partner KC and I first started Academy of Handmade in 2013, Instagram was still very much a thing brands were figuring out — and from the looks of things on there right now, that’s still the case.
But at the time, we knew having an account on Instagram would be necessary since it was a hub for creatives. Beyond that, though, we didn’t have a clue where to start.
Our first awards show celebrating makers was in 2014. It became clear that sponsors for the event cared about numbers and with about 500 followers at the time, we didn’t have an “impressive” Instagram following (I want to stress that this number was only not meaningful to our sponsors. The people following us were and are very meaningful to us).
Some of you will have businesses where large follower bases will matter a lot and some of you will not need as many. Whether you are trying to impress sponsors or are just trying to spread the word about the work you do or the art you create having a sizable Instagram following can help you. Here are some things we learned in growing our own audience on Instagram.
Change Your Mindset
Even though I had a background in marketing and PR, I was still befuddled with growing our Instagram following. I took to the Internet, but most of the articles were either written by bloggers who were still themselves accidentally successful on the platform or they were really smarmy marketing tactics like buying followers or basically spamming people (no thanks!).
So, I started to experiment. I tried to block out any preconceived notions that only bloggers with with pretty pictures get famous on there or that I knew how things “worked” from what I read or from my experiences on other social media platforms. I played around with the app and really explored it.
Find Your People
And that’s when I discovered hashtags. Oh hashtags, I thought I knew you from Twitter and as the way people use you to make jokes at the end of sentences. But on Instagram I started to realize it’s also how people identify themselves. #mindblown
People use hashtags on Instagram to communicate what’s happening in the photo and also who they are. For instance, I found that by searching #maker I found all of these people who were telling me that they were a maker and that they just took a photo related to that identity. I was so excited. An entire hashtag (assuming no one misuses them) of MY people. WHOO!
Another example is our member Jenet of @fmdjewelryla. She knows her customers and she knows they are ladies that like to drink wine and have wine parties. So guess what? When she goes through #winewednesday or #winedown she see will see lots of photos of and by people that she already knows are the kind of people who like to buy her jewelry. While not everyone will be, she can visually see and deduce who is a lady that likes wine just by clicking on the photos.
Engage. Engage. Engage. And then engage some more.
Alright, now that you know that all of your customers are just a hashtag away, now what? Say hello! Give a high five by liking their photo or photos. Make them your friends the way you’d make someone your friend in real life– be nice, say hello and (please) don’t try to sell them things. They will see this nice account on their account and go to check you out. And don’t forget to continue that great engagement on your own Instagram posts.
And this is why pretty pictures on their own won’t get you followers. People who don’t follow you don’t know you are there. More specifically YOUR people won’t know you are there unless you tell them. Posting a pretty picture doesn’t necessarily tell them you are there.
The easiest way to engage is to use Iconosquare or Squarelovin. These tools are done on what I like to call my “big girl keyboard” aka my computer, so they save your eyes and hands as you explore and type. Basically, they are online interfaces for Instagram that will let you explore hashtags, like and comment.
Create Community Not Content
Bold statement, I know! But I want to be clear that when we push out pretty pictures just because we think that’s what people want or we see others doing it, we really start to lose the “social” of social media. AND we also lose connection with our audience and our own brand.
So, now that you’ve explored a hashtag, found your people, and said hello, these people who you’ve engaged are now going to come over to your account to check you out. They will decide if they also want to connect with you largely based on the photos they are presented with. Are these the kind of photos that they want to keep seeing in their feed? Does this interest them?
This is when photos do start to matter. BUT please don’t chase #ihavethisthingwithfloors, macaron and pinata trends (unless that’s your brand– then by all means get to gramming that plate of macarons). Figure out the photos that tell YOUR brand’s story and connects with YOUR audience. I know. Easier said than done. But know that people will still follow you even without an account that looks straight out of Design*Sponge. Promise.
I’d love to see what you’re up to and know how your Instagram journey is going. Say hello at @academyofhandmade